Wednesday, July 3, 2013

July 3, 1863: "The Great Charge and Artillery Fighting at Gettysburg"

E. Porter Alexander, C.S. Army.
Lieutenant General James Longstreet put the responsibility for ordering the Confederate assault at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 on Colonel E. Porter Alexander. It was up to Alexander to decide whether his artillery barrage had suppressed the Union defenses enough for Major General George Pickett's assault to proceed.
The Great Charge and Artillery Fighting at Gettysburg
by E. Porter Alexander

The Reserve Artillery of Longstreet's corps, in the Gettysburg campaign, consisted of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans, then under Major Eshleman, nine guns, and my own battalion of twenty-six guns. Besides these, the artillery of the corps comprised Cabell's, Henry's, and Dearing's battalions of eighteen guns each. The latter battalions were usually attached, on the march, respectively to McLaws's, Hood's, and Pickett's divisions of infantry.

On the first of July, 1863, the Reserve Artillery was encamped near Greenwood, and we had no idea that the great battle of the campaign had already opened about eighteen miles away. Early in the night, however, rumors reached us that Hill's corps had been heavily engaged, and that Ewell's had come to his assistance; that the enemy had been driven some distance, but had finally made a stand in a very strong position. These rumors were soon followed by orders for the artillery to march at 1 o'clock for the front. There was little time for sleep before taking the road, and I think but few improved even that little. There was the usual lively interest, of course, to hear of the personal fortunes of friends in the two corps which had been engaged. Who was killed and who safe ? Then there was no one so dull as not to appreciate the tremendous gravity to us of the results of the battle which the next day was to bring. We had penetrated farther into the enemy's country than ever before. Our only communication with our arsenals and depots was by an unguarded wagon-road to Staunton, Virginia, about two hundred miles, over mountains and across unbridged rivers; much of it through a hostile country, and all of it liable to cavalry raids by the enemy. But we felt that we were now, somehow, nearer the enemy's heart than we had ever been before,-- within easy reach of some vital part,-- and that a blow struck now must have many times the effect it would have if given in Virginia against only an invading army. Our confidence in Lee was, of course, supreme, and the opportune arrival of Ewell to Hill's aid gave fresh confirmation of the skill that would direct our efforts. There seemed to be a prevalent feeling that fortune now favored us and that victory or defeat now depended solely on ourselves.

Except in equipment, I think a better army, better nerved up to its work, never marched upon a battle- field. But many of our infantry still carried smooth-bore muskets, and our artillery ammunition was inferior, especially that of the rifles. The Confederacy did not have the facilities for much nice work of that sort, and we had to take what we could get without rigid inspection. How our rifled batteries always envied our friends in the opposition their abundant supply of splendid ammunition ! For an unreliable fuse or a rifle-shell which "tumbles" sickens not only the gunner but the whole battery, more than "misfires" at large game dishearten a sportsman. There is no encouragement to careful aiming when the ammunition fails, and the men feel handicapped. But for all our confidence that Providence had now at last consented to "come down and take a proper view of the situation," as one of our good chaplains used to pray, there was a very natural anxiety to know how the enemy had fought the day before at Gettysburg. As we met the wounded and staff-officers who had been in the action, I remember many questions asked on that subject. There was no great comfort to be derived from the answers, which were generally in profane simile. Indeed, I have heard survivors of the war say since that some of the Federal fighting that day equaled or surpassed any they ever saw from first to last.

We marched quite steadily, with a good road and a bright moon, until about 7 A. M. on the 2d, when we halted in a grassy open grove about a mile west of Seminary Ridge, and fed and watered. Here, soon afterward, I was sent for by General Longstreet, and, riding forward, found him with General Lee on Seminary Ridge. Opposite, about a mile away, on Cemetery Ridge, overlooking the town, lay the enemy, their batteries making considerable display, but their infantry, behind stone walls and ridges, scarcely visible. In between us were only gentle rolling slopes of pasture and wheat-fields, with a considerable body of woods to the right and front. The two Round Tops looked over everything, and a signal-flag was visible on the highest. Instinctively the idea arose," If we could only take position here and have them attack us through this open ground!" But I soon learned that we were in no such luck--the boot, in fact, being upon the other foot.

It was explained to me that our corps was to assault the enemy's left flank, and I was directed to reconnoiter it and then to take charge of all the artillery of the corps and direct it in the attack, leaving my own battalion to the command of Major Huger. I was particularly cautioned, in moving the artillery, to keep it out of sight of the signal-station upon Round Top.

I immediately started on my reconnoissance, and in about three hours had a good idea of all the ground, and had Cabell's, Henry's, and my own battalions parked near where our infantry lines were to be formed and the attack begun. Dearing's battalion with Pickett's infantry was not yet up, and the Washington Artillery was left in reserve.

Through some blunder, part of our infantry had been marched on a road that brought them in sight of Round Top, and instead of taking to the fields and hollows, they had been halted for an hour, and then had been counter-marched and sent around by a circuitous road, via Black Horse Tavern, about five miles out of the way, thereby losing at least two hours.

We waited quite a time for the infantry, and I think it was about 4 o'clock when at last the word was given for Hood's division to move out and endeavor to turn the enemy's left, while McLaws awaited the development of Hood's attack, ready to assault the Peach Orchard. Henry's battalion moved out with Hood and was speedily and heavily engaged; Cabell was ready to support him, and at once went into action near Snyder's house, about seven hundred yards from the Peach Orchard.

The Federal artillery was ready for us and in their usual full force and good practice. The ground at. Cabell's position gave little protection, and he suffered rapidly in both men and horses. To help him I ran up Huger With 18 guns of my own 26, to Warfield's house, within 500 yards of the Peach Orchard, and opened upon it. This made fifty-four guns in action, and I hoped they would crush that part of the enemy's line in a very short time, but the fight was longer and hotter than I expected. So accurate was the enemy's fire, that two of my guns were fairly dismounted, and the loss of men was so great that I had to ask General Barksdale, whose brigade was lying down close behind in the wood, for help to handle the heavy 24-pounder howitzers of Moody's battery. He gave me permission to call for volunteers, and in a minute I had eight good fellows, of whom, alas ! we buried two that night, and sent to the hospital three others mortally or severely wounded. At last I sent for my other two batteries, but before they arrived McLaws's division charged past our guns, and the enemy deserted their line in confusion. Then I believed that Providence was indeed "taking the proper view," and that the war was very nearly over. Every battery was limbered to the front, and the two batteries from the rear coming up, all six charged in line across the plain and went into action again at the position the enemy had deserted. I can recall no more splendid sight, on a small scale,-- and certainly no more inspiriting moment during the war,-- than that of the charge of these six batteries. An artillerist's heaven is to follow the routed enemy, after a tough resistance, and throw shells and canister into his disorganized and fleeing masses. Then the explosions of the guns sound louder and more powerful, and the very shouts of the gunners, ordering "Fire !" in rapid succession, thrill one's very soul. There is no excitement on earth like it. It is far prettier shooting than at a compact, narrow line of battle, or at another battery. Now we saw our heaven just in front, and were already breathing the very air of victory. Now we would have our revenge, and make them sorry they had staid so long. Everything was in a rush. The ground was generally good, and pieces and caissons went at a gallop, some cannoneers mounted, and some running by the sides--not in regular line, but a general race and scramble to get there first.

But we only had a moderately good time with Sickles's retreating corps after all. They fell back upon fresh troops in what seemed a strong position extending along the ridge north of Round Top. Hood's troops under Law gained the slope of Little Round Top, but were driven back to its base. Our infantry lines had become disjointed in the advance, and the fighting became a number of isolated combats between brigades. The artillery took part wherever it could, firing at everything in sight, and a sort of pell-mell fighting lasted until darkness covered the field and the fuses of the flying shells looked like little meteors in the air. But then both musketry and artillery slackened off, and by 9 o'clock the field was silent. It was evident that we had not finished the job, and would have to make a fresh effort in the morning. The firing had hardly ceased when my faithful little darkey, Charlie, came up hunting for me, with a fresh horse, affectionate congratulations on my safety, and, what was equally acceptable, something to eat. Negro servants hunting for their masters were a feature of the landscape that night. I then found General Longstreet, learned what I could of the fortunes of the day on other parts of the field, and got orders for the morning. They were, in brief, that our present position was to be held and the attack renewed as soon as Pickett arrived, and he was expected early.

There was a great deal to do meanwhile. Our sound horses were to be fed and watered, those killed and disabled were to be replaced from the wagon-teams, ammunition must be replenished, and the ground examined and positions of batteries rectified. But a splendid moon made all comparatively easy, and greatly assisted, too, in the care of the wounded, many of whom, both our own and the enemy's, lay about among our batteries nearly all night. About 1 o'clock I made a little bed of fence- rails, as preferable to the trampled ground in the Peach Orchard, and got two hours' sleep. At 3 I began to put the batteries in position again and was joined by the Washington Artillery, which had been in reserve the day before. As daylight came I found I had placed about twenty guns so that the enemy's batteries on Cemetery Hill enfiladed the line, and I had a panic, almost, for fear the enemy would discover my blunder and open before I could rectify it. They could not, perhaps, see down into the valley as early as I could see them, and all was right before they opened. They never could have resisted the temptation to such pot-shooting. Apparently to feel us, they fired a few shots, and hit one or two men and some horses; but we did not respond, wanting to save our ammunition for the real work, and we were grateful to them for their moderation, our ground being very unfavorable as regarded shelter.

Early in the morning General Lee came around, and I was then told that we were to assault Cemetery Hill, which lay rather to our left. This necessitated a good many changes of our positions, which the enemy did not altogether approve of, and they took occasional shots at us, though we shifted about, as inoffensively as possible, and carefully avoided getting into bunches. But we stood it all meekly, and by 10 o'clock, Dearing having come up, we had seventy-five guns in what was virtually one battery, so disposed as to fire on Cemetery Hill and the batteries south of it, which would have a fire on our advancing infantry. Pickett's division had arrived, and his men were resting and eating. Along Seminary Ridge, a short distance to our left, were sixty-three guns of A. P. Hill's corps, under Colonel R. L. Walker. As their distance was a little too great for effective howitzer fire, General Pendleton offered me the use of nine howitzers belonging to that corps. I accepted them, intending to take them into the charge with Pickett; so I put them in a hollow behind a bit of wood, with no orders but to wait there until I sent for them. About 11, some of Hill's skirmishers and the enemy's began fighting over a barn between the lines, and gradually his artillery and the enemy's took part, until over a hundred guns were engaged, and a tremendous roar was kept up for quite a time. But it gradually died out, and the whole field became as silent as a churchyard until I o'clock. The enemy, aware of the strength of his position, simply sat still and waited for us. It had been arranged that when the infantry column was ready, General Longstreet should order two guns fired by the Washington Artillery. (1) On that signal all our guns were to open on Cemetery Hill and the ridge extending toward Round Top, which was covered with batteries. I was to observe the fire and give Pickett the order to charge. I accordingly took position, about 12, at the most favorable point, just on the left of the line of guns and with one of Pickett's couriers with me. Soon after I received the following note from Longstreet:

"COLONEL: If the artillery fire does not have the effect to drive off the enemy or greatly demoralize him, so as to make our efforts pretty certain, I would prefer that you should not advise General Pickett to make the charge. I shall rely a great deal on your good judgment to determine the matter, and shall expect you to let General Pickett know when the moment offers."

This note rather startled me. If that assault was to be made on General Lee's judgment it was all right, but I did not want it made on mine. I wrote back to General Longstreet to the following effect:

"GENERAL: I will only be able to judge of the effect of our fire on the enemy by his return fire, for his infantry is but little exposed to view and the smoke will obscure the whole field. If, as I infer from your note, there is any alternative to this attack, it should be carefully considered before opening our fire for it will take all the artillery ammunition we have left to test this one thoroughly, and, if the result is unfavorable, we will have none left for another effort. And even if this is entirely successful, it can only be so at a very bloody cost.'

To this presently came the following reply:
"COLONEL: The intention is to advance the infantry if the artillery has the desired effect of driving the enemy's off, or having other effect such as to warrant us in making the attack. When the moment arrives advise General Pickett, and of course advance such artillery as you can use in aiding the attack."

I hardly knew whether this left me discretion or not, but at any rate it seemed decided that the artillery must open. I felt that if we went that far we could not draw back, but the infantry must go too. General A. R. Wright, of Hill's corps, was with me looking at the position when these notes were received, and we discussed them together. Wright said, "It is not so hard to .9,0 there as it looks; I was nearly there with my brigade yesterday. The trouble is to stay there. The whole Yankee army is there in a bunch."

I was influenced by this, and somewhat by a sort of camp rumor which I had hoard that morning, that General Lee had said that he was going to send every man he had upon that hill. At any rate, I assumed that the question of supports had been well considered, and that whatever was possible would be done. But before replying I rode to see Pickett, who was with his division a short distance in the rear. I did not tell him my object, but only tried to guess how he felt about the charge. He seemed very sanguine, and thought himself in luck to have the chance. Then I felt that I could not make any delay or let the attack suffer by any indecision on my part. And, that General Longstreet might know my intention, I wrote him only this: "GENERAL: When our artillery fire is at its best, I shall order Pickett to charge."

Then, getting a little more anxious, I decided to send for the nine howitzers and take them ahead of Pickett up nearly to musket range, instead of following close behind him as at first intended; so I sent a courier to bring them up in front of the infantry, but under cover of the wood. The courier could not find them. He was sent again, and only returned after our fire was opened, saying they were gone. I afterward learned that General Pendleton had sent for a part of them, and the others had moved to a neighboring hollow to get out of the line of the enemy's fire at one of Hill's batteries during the artillery duel they had had an hour before.

At exactly I o'clock by my watch the two signal-guns were heard in quick succession. In another minute every gun was at work. The enemy were not slow in coming back at us, and the grand roar of nearly the whole artillery of both armies burst in on the silence, almost as suddenly as the full notes of an organ would fill a church. [See p. 371.]

The artillery of Ewell's corps, however, took only a small part, I believe, in this, as they were too far away on the other side of the town. Some of them might have done good service from positions between Hill and Ewell, enfilading the batteries fighting us. The opportunity to do that was the single advantage in our having the exterior line, to compensate for all its disadvantages. But our line was so extended that all of it was not well studied, and the officers of the different corps had no opportunity to examine each other's ground for chances to cooperate.

The enemy's position seemed to have broken out with guns everywhere, and from Round Top to Cemetery Hill was blazing like a volcano. The air seemed full of missiles from every direction. The severity of the fire may be illustrated by the casualties in my own battalion under Major Huger.

Under my predecessor, General S. D. Lee, the battalion had made a reputation at the Second Manassas and also at Sharpsburg. At the latter battle it had a peculiarly hard time fighting infantry and superior metal nearly all day, and losing about eighty-five men and sixty horses. Sharpsburg they called "artillery hell." At Gettysburg the losses in the same command, including the infantry that volunteered to help serve the guns, were 144 men and 116 horses, nearly all by artillery fire. Some parts of the Federal artillery suffered in the same proportion under our fire. I heard of one battery losing 27 out of 36 horses in 10 minutes. Before the cannonade opened I had made up my mind to give Pickett the order to advance within fifteen or twenty minutes after it began. But when I looked at the full development of the enemy's batteries, and knew that his infantry was generally protected from our fire by stone walls and swells of the ground, I could not bring myself to give the word. It seemed madness to launch infantry into that fire, with nearly three-quarters of a mile to go at midday under a July sun. I let the 15 minutes pass, and 20, and 25, hoping vainly for something to turn up. Then I wrote to Pickett: "If you are coming at all you must come at once, or I cannot give you proper support; but the enemy's fire has not slackened at all; at least eighteen guns are still firing from the cemetery itself." Five minutes after sending that message, the enemy's fire suddenly began to 'slacken, and the guns in the cemetery limbered up and vacated the position.

We Confederates often did such things as that to save our ammunition for use against infantry, but I had never before seen the Federals withdraw theft guns simply to save them up for the infantry fight. So I said, "If he does not run fresh batteries in there in five minutes, this is our fight." I looked anxiously with my glass, and the five minutes passed without a sign of life on the deserted position, still swept by our fire, and littered with dead men and horses and fragments of disabled carriages. Then I wrote Pickett, urgently: "For God's sake, come quick. The eighteen guns are gone; come quick, or my ammunition won't let me support you properly."

I afterward heard from others what took place with my first note to Pickett. Pickett took it to Longstreet, Longstreet read it, and said nothing. Pickett said, "General, shall I advance ?" Longstreet, knowing it had to be, but unwilling to give the word, turned his face away. Pickett saluted and said, "I am going to move forward, sir," galloped off to his division and immediately put it in motion.

Longstreet, leaving his staff, came out alone to where I was. It was then about 1:40 P.M. I explained the situation, feeling then more hopeful, but afraid our artillery ammunition might not hold out for all we would want. Longstreet said, "Stop Pickett immediately and replenish your ammunition." I explained that it would take too long, and the enemy would recover from the effect our fire was then having, and we had, moreover, very little to replenish with. Longstreet said, "I don't want to make this attack. I would stop it now but that General Lee ordered it and expects it to go on. I don't see how it can succeed."

I listened, but did not dare offer a word. The battle was lost if we stopped. Ammunition was far too low to try anything else, for we had been fighting three days. There was a chance, and it was not my part to interfere. While Longstreet was still speaking, Pickett's division swept out of the wood and showed the full length of its gray ranks and shining bayonets, as grand a sight as ever a man looked on. Joining it on the left, Pettigrew stretched farther than I could see. General Dick Garnett, just out of the sick ambulance, and buttoned up in an old blue overcoat, riding at the head of his brigade passed us and saluted Longstreet. Garnett was a warm personal friend, and we had not met before for months. We had served on the plains together before the war. I rode with him a short distance, and then we wished each other luck and a good-bye, which was our last.

Then I rode down the line of guns, selecting such as had enough ammunition to follow Pickett's advance, and starting them after him as fast as possible. I got, I think, fifteen or eighteen in all, in a little while, and went with them. Meanwhile, the infantry had no sooner debouched on the plain than all the enemy' line, which had been nearly silent, broke out again with all its batteries. The eighteen guns were back in the cemetery, and a storm of shell began bursting over and among our infantry. All of our guns-- silent as the infantry passed between them--reopened over their heads when the lines had got a couple of hundred yards away, but the enemy's artillery let us alone and fired only at the infantry. No one could have looked at that advance without feeling proud of it.

But, as our supporting guns advanced, we passed many poor, mangled victims left in its trampled wake. + A terrific infantry fire was now opened upon Pickett, and a considerable force of the enemy moved out to attack the right flank of his line. We halted, unlimbered, and opened fire upon it. Pickett's men never halted, but opened fire at close range, swarmed over the fences and among the enemy's guns--were swallowed up in smoke, and that was the last of them. The conflict hardly seemed to last five minutes before they were melted away, and only disorganized stragglers pursued by a moderate fire were coming back. Just then, Wilcox's brigade passed by us, moving to Pickett's support. There was no longer anything to support, and with the keenest pity at the useless waste of life, I saw them advance. The men, as they passed us, looked bewildered, as if they wondered what they were expected to do, or why they were there. However, they were soon halted and moved back. They suffered some losses, and we had a few casualties from canister sent at them at rather long range.

From the position of our guns the sight of this conflict was grand and thrilling, and we watched it as men with a life-and-death interest in the result. If it should be favorable to us, the war was nearly over; if against us, we each had the risks of many battles yet to go through. And the event culminated with fearful rapidity. Listening to the rolling crashes of musketry, it was hard to realize that they were made up of single reports, and that each musket-shot represented nearly a minute of a man's life in that storm of lead and iron. It seemed as if 100,000 men were engaged, and that human life was being poured out like water. As soon as it appeared that the assault had failed, we ceased firing in order to save ammunition in case the enemy should advance. But we held our ground as boldly as possible, though we were entirely without support, and very low in ammunition. The enemy gave us an occasional shot for a while and then, to our great relief, let us rest. About that time General Lee, entirely alone, rode up and remained with me for a long time. He then probably first appreciated the full extent of the disaster as the disorganized stragglers made their way back past us. The Comte de Paris, in his excellent account of this battle, remarks that Lee, as a soldier, must at this moment have foreseen Appomattox--that he must have realized that he could never again muster so powerful an army, and that for the future he could only delay, but not avert, the failure of his cause. However this may be, it was certainly a momentous thing to him to see that superb attack end in such a bloody repulse. But, whatever his emotions, there was no trace of them in his calm and self-possessed bearing. I thought at the time his coming there very imprudent, and the absence of all his staff- officers and couriers strange. It could only have happened by his express intention. I have since thought it possible that he came, thinking the enemy might follow in pursuit of Pickett, personally to rally stragglers about our guns and make a desperate defense. He had the instincts of a soldier within him as strongly as any man. Looking at Burnside's dense columns swarming through the fire of our guns toward Marye's Hill at Fredericksburg, he had said: "It is well war is so terrible or we would grow too fond of it." No soldier could have looked on at Pickett's charge and not burned to be in it. To have a personal part in a close and desperate fight at that moment would, I believe, have been at heart a great pleasure to General Lee, and possibly he was looking for one. We were here joined by Colonel Fremantle of Her Majesty's Coldstream Guards, who was visiting our army. He afterward published an excellent account of the battle in "Blackwood," and described many little incidents that took place here, such as General Lee's encouraging the retreating stragglers to rally as soon as they got back to cover, and saying that the failure was his fault, not theirs. Colonel Fremantle especially noticed that General Lee reproved an officer for spurring a foolish horse, and advised him to use only gentle measures. The officer was Lieutenant F. M. Colston of my staff, whom General Lee had requested to ride off to the right and try to discover the cause of a great cheering we heard in the enemy's lines. We thought it might mean an advance upon us, but it proved to be only a greeting to some general officer riding along the line.

That was the end of the battle. Little by little we got some guns to the rear to replenish and refit, and get in condition to fight again, and some we held boldly in advanced positions all along the line. Sharp-shooters came out and worried some of the men, and single guns would fire on these, sometimes very rapidly, and manage to keep them back; some parts of the line had not even a picket in front. But the enemy's artillery generally let us alone, and I certainly saw no reason to disturb the entente cordiale. Night came very slowly, but came at last; and about 10 the last gun was withdrawn to Willoughby Run, whence we had moved to the attack the afternoon before.

Of Pickett's three brigadiers, Garnett and Armistead were killed and Kemper dangerously wounded. Fry, who commanded Pettigrew's brigade, which adjoined Garnett on the left, and in the charge was the brigade of direction for the whole force, was also left on the field desperately wounded. Of all Pickett's field-officers in the three brigades only one major came out unhurt. The men who made the attack were good enough: the only trouble was, there were not enough of them.

No comments: